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Pro-Israel NGO puts pressure on UNRWA for aiding Palestinian refugees

Campaign by UN Watch to pressure US to cut $400m funds for UN's Palestinian refugee agency could have devastating impact on its work
UNRWA provides a lifeline to five million Palestinian refugees (AFP)

Operating as a humanitarian organisation in the Palestinian territories presents challenges even during the best of times. The devastation wrought by the Gaza war in 2014 and the conflict in Syria has put unprecedented pressure on relief efforts.

Now one of the oldest and most established humanitarian groups in the region faces another problem - it is under fire from factions that appear set on undermining its reputation and stopping its funding. None of this is helped by the fact that the group in question is facing a funding crisis of its own.

This is no ordinary organisation and no small sum of money - this is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has a budget of $1.5bn this year for regular programmes and emergency work and provides a lifeline to five million Palestinian refugees, permanently displaced by the Middle East’s most intractable struggle.

UNRWA was established by the UN with a mission to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But the deepening crisis in the Middle East has put a considerable strain on UNWRA’s finances – its cash deficit this year rose to $85mn.

"Funding is generally not keeping pace with increased refugee needs and uptake of services. This has led to a worrying erosion in the quality of services," the UNWRA says on its website.

But a well-connected group with links to vocal figures in Washington has launched an aggressive campaign in recent months to discredit UNWRA.

“It shows how the humanitarian sector has become so politicised - when it starts to involve UN agencies, you’ve got a problem,” Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the RUSI security think tank in London, told Middle East Eye.

Geneva-based UN Watch says it is an NGO and involved with “monitoring the UN and promoting human rights” and ensuring the fair treatment of United Nations member states. It is also linked to the American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest Jewish lobby groups in the US.

An investigation by Spinwatch, the investigative website, found that the Geneva-based group received over $1.8mn between 2003-2007 from the American Jewish Committee (AJC). It’s not known if UN Watch still receives funding from the AJC, which has changed the way it has reported its grant-making in the past few years.

Even though much of UN Watch’s work strongly campaigns against human rights abuses in many parts of the world, allegations of Israeli human rights abuses remain notably absent from its website.

Whatever its affiliations, UN Watch has a strong network. Reporters pick up their material during daily press briefings by the State Department and the UN secretary general’s office in New York.

The organisation's allies include Elliot Abrams, a former national security advisor US President George W Bush, who has called for the UNWRA to be closed down and who alleges that it allowed members of Hamas and other groups he considers to be "terrorist" to hold agency posts.

UN Watch also has a history of opposing Palestinian-affiliated groups. It lobbied the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) member states to reverse a decision to grant the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), an NGO based in London, special consultative status to the ECOSOC last summer. Its campaign failed and the PRC was admitted.

Now UN Watch has turned its attention to UNWRA, raising questions over funding it receives from governments around the world, particularly the $400mn UN Watch says it gets annually from the US. The group’s executive director, Hille Neuer, tweets regularly to Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, about UNWRA.

The UNWRA said in December that the US had contributed "more than $380mn" in 2015.

On 19 February, UNWRA said the US had contributed $47.7mn to its Syrian appeal and had contributed $171.1mn towards its activities in 2016, and described the US as its "largest bilateral donor... and one of the agency’s most reliable supporters".

“There are plenty of people who know how to use the system and that often involves tools such as criticising funding - or calling for a funding cut or bank account closures,” said Keatinge at RUSI.

“These are effective ways of disrupting an organisation’s activities - we use it on terrorists, others use it on groups that they think are close to terrorists,” he added.

Since start of the US-led "War on Terror", the charitable sector, particularly in the Middle East, has become heavily politicised. Many humanitarian groups, including those accused of funding terrorism indirectly through third parties, have been pursued by US and Israeli authorities, resulting in closures and assets seizures.

Controversy over Facebook posts

UN Watch has seized upon a recent controversy that has seen a number of UNWRA employees disciplined for using Facebook to celebrate attacks against Israelis. Violence surged last autumn in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem when Israeli settler attacks sparked a spate of alleged stabbings by Palestinians against Israeli military officers, settlers and civilians.

Anti-Semitic messages were posted on the social-networking site, including cartoons and posts glorifying attacks against Israelis. Some turned out to be from fake accounts and not connected to UNWRA employees but some were genuine.

UNWRA took action and suspended employees who were punished with suspension from work and loss of pay. It worked with Facebook to take down over 100 offending accounts.

In early March, UN Watch reported that Laila Mokhiber, UNWRA’s US communications director, had posted anti-Israel tweets, violating UN neutrality rules.

A spokesman for UNWRA declined to comment on UN Watch, but said: "UNRWA takes all allegations of violations of UN principles as well as its neutrality and established social media policies very seriously.”  

“UNRWA condemns and will not tolerate anti-Semitism or racism in any form. Every allegation brought to our attention has either been or is being assessed, and where there are prima facie facts to support the allegation, we take disciplinary action in accordance with due process,” the spokesman added.

UN Watch had failed to respond to MEE's emailed questions about its activities, political and financial affiliations at the time of publication.

Tensions between UNWRA and Israel have run high since the 2014 Gaza War when UNRWA discovered weapons components in the agency’s schools.

UNWRA says it called in bomb disposal experts answerable to the government of national unity, which didn’t have close ties to Hamas, but Israel criticised the move, saying this amounted to giving the stockpiles to the group.

Many Israelis and pro-Israel lobbyists in the US view UNWRA with scepticism over its perceived bias to the Palestinian cause.

But Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), an advocacy group promoting UK engagement with the Arab world, told MEE it was inevitable that some of UNWRA's 30,000 staff would have misgivings about Israel, given that many of them were Palestinians working in Gaza.

“If UNWRA staff have been taken to task about this, it’s certainly not justified at all but it’s not surprising either," said Doyle.

“As an employer, it largely employs Palestinians at its schools and community centres. If you have Palestinian employees in Gaza, and Gaza is being bombed and blockaded, you can’t expect them to remain oblivious to what is going on around them.”

The attacks on UNWRA by UN Watch continue.

Huge threat to funding

Late last year, Neuer criticised UNWRA spokesman Chris Gunness for speaking at an event with the UK charity Interpal at the House of Commons, attended by a number of MPs and members of the House of Lords.

Interpal and UNWRA have been official partners for years. The charity is proscribed by the US as a terrorist organisation but has been cleared three times by the UK Charity Commission of having links to terrorism.

And last October, Lleana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives who opposes US support for UNWRA, introduced a bill to cut off its funding and accused it of supporting violence against Israel. 

She accused UNWRA of having links to terrorism, saying it propagated a “systemic and endemic anti-Israel, anti-Semitic bias and … blatant incitement to violence”.

Doyle At CAABU said that the loss of US funds for UNWRA would be devastating.

“It would be a huge deal for Palestinian refugees in terms of delivery of services, primary healthcare and food parcels. It’s massively important. UNWRA is already underfunded as it is,” he said.

“If refugee communities have nowhere to go to and have no aid then they are of course more liable to fall into the arms of extremists.”